Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Comparative Religion

First Advisor

Dr. Brian C. Wilson

Second Advisor

Dr. Gwen Athene Tarbox

Third Advisor

Dr. Timothy Light


This project bridges the academic fields of comparative religion and children's literature by examining depictions of religious experience in children's literature. I specifically discuss how female religious experience and morality are depicted in three single-author series for girls set between 1850 and 1900—the Elsie Dinsmore series by Martha Finley, the Little Women series by Louisa May Alcott and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I examine the moral principles of honesty and obedience, longsuffering contentment and industriousness and how they can come together to contribute to the development of a sensitive conscience which can encourage a sense of spiritual independence. The development of spiritual independence is an important aspect of both the Elsie Dinsmore series and the Little House series. Sometimes, however, the focus on honesty and obedience, longsuffering contentment and industriousness do not encourage the growth of spiritual independence. The Little Women series does not develop the same concept of independence and reform-thinking. Despite Alcott's acknowledgement and support of the progressive movements of the 19* -century, the characters in the Little Women series do not generally reflect a sense of spiritual independence and reform thinking.

Although the close relationship between the progressive movements of the 19 century with religious ideology has occasionally been noted in adult literature and culture, it has frequently been overlooked in children's literature. I am arguing that girls and women who are encouraged to be spiritually independent learn to make decisions which allow them greater freedom. They learn not to be afraid to think for themselves which encourages reform thinking and contributes to social change. This pattern shows, at least in part, the link between evangelical thinking and the progressive movements of the 19l century and highlights that conservative religious belief can encourage reform ideology.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access